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Dental Materials

Dental Retraction Cord In Gums

An Oral Answers reader, Austin emailed me last week with the following question:

“I had 3 temp crowns that were put in on my right side lower and 2 on my left side lower. Today when I was using my water pic I was cleaning my lower right and something started to feel like it was stuck between my teeth so I kept going and pulled out a black and white string, my gums have been bleeding and hurting.  What should I do?”

Before we talk about what happened with Austin, let’s take a look at what exactly this “black and white string” was and why it’s used in dentistry.

Dental Retraction Cord

Ultradent Ultrapak Brand Dental Retraction Cord
Dental Retraction Cord – © Ultradent Products, Inc.

Usually when dentists cut teeth for crowns, they will pack a piece of string, known as dental retraction cord, gingival retraction cord, or just dental cord between your tooth and your gums.  I’ve also used retraction cord when doing fillings on teeth that have a cavity that goes below the gum-line.

This cord helps move the gums away from the teeth and can also be treated with a solution that prevents the gums from bleeding.  That way, the dentist can focus on preparing the tooth without the gums getting in the way.  The dental cord also helps the dentist make sure that the whole tooth gets recorded when an impression is taken.

If you want to see what impression cord looks like in the mouth, scroll down to Figure 3 on this page for a picture (the dentist has prepared a tooth for a type of filling that will be made in a dental lab.)   This article has another picture of dental retraction cord.

Is Dental Cord Harmful to Your Gums?

This study looked at a few different ways to retract patients’ gum tissue and found that while dental retraction cord does cause an inflammation of the gums, they do completely heal and there is no long-term harm.  Here’s some direct quotes from the study:

  • “This study showed that all retraction techniques caused an acute injury after 1 day of retraction, which took 1 week to heal in the Ultrapak and the Magic Foam groups.”
  • “This study showed that none of the techniques tested seems to harm the tissues in the long term.”
  • “The data indicated that all retraction techniques caused a temporary inflammation, measured through the gingival index.”

In Austin’s case, it would appear that the dentist and dental assistant simply forgot to remove the retraction cord after the impression was taken and just cemented the temporary crowns on the teeth with the retraction cord in place.  If the retraction cord was in between the gums and the tooth for an extended period of time, the gum tissues may have started growing around it and it probably caused more pain and bled more when Austin removed the cord during his oral hygiene routine.


Although having the cord around his gums probably wasn’t very comfortable, the studies seem to show that there aren’t any long-term harmful effects.

Thanks for your question, Austin.  Hopefully you’ve helped more people know what to do if they end up finding some cord between their teeth and gums after getting their temporary crowns put on!

If you have any questions about dental retraction cord, I’d love to hear them in the comments section below.  Thanks for reading!

The Dental Office Smell

After getting a job at a dental office, a woman who goes by the name of W wrote, “Ya know that dental office smell? Well, imagine working at one. You come home and that smell is stuck to you like white on rice…It’s in my hair. It’s on my hands… I can tell you I washed my hands over 100 times today. Maybe more… And I can still smell dental office on them.”

Dental Office SmellThe dental office smell has been described by many internet users as smelling something like:

  • Antiseptic
  • Mint
  • Latex
  • A fake hospital (I’m not quite sure what that is)
  • Cloves
  • Air (whatever that smells like!)

The dental office smell: some people hate it, and some crazy people like it.  So where exactly does that smell come from?

What Causes the Dental Office Smell

As far as I can tell, the dental office smell actually is a medley of many different odors that can be divided into three main odor-causing categories:

1 – Aromas That Come From Dental Products

Clove Oil Is a Culprit of the Dental Office SmellIn dentistry, we use a lot of funny smelling materials on people’s teeth.  When you get a temporary crown made, we basically combine a strong smelling liquid and a powder to make acrylic.  Acrylic is also used to construct many dentures.

Dentists put in fillings that contain eugenol – commonly known as clove oil – in people’s teeth.  Many people say that clove oil is one of the major smells found in dental offices.  An interesting study found that clove oil invokes sensations of anxiety and fear in people who dislike the dentist while people who don’t mind the dentist think that clove oil smells “pleasant.”

Another strong odor that occurs at the dental office is when you have a root canal done.  The dentist uses disinfectants in the canal — many times bleach is used, which has a really strong smell when squirted into a tooth!  Other pulp treatments may require the use of different chemicals such as formocresol and metacresylacetate (Cresatin).  Those chemicals can quickly make a dental office smell like formaldehyde.

2 – Scents From Cleaning Products

Infection control in dentistry is very important.  In fact, dentists use many infection-control products that have their own various smells.  Here’s a few that may leave a lingering smell in the dental office:

  • Antibacterial soaps
  • Disinfection wipes used to clean have an alcohol smell
  • Gloves – some people swear that the dental office smell is caused by gloves.
  • When we sterilize dental instruments, we put them in what is basically a high-pressure oven that kills every form of life.  This process can cause certain smells to gradually nestle their way into the walls of the dental practice.
  • Glutaraldehyde can be used to clean products that can’t be heat-sterilized.

3 – Odors That Come From Dental Procedures

One of the main components of the dental smell is something that I like to call tooth dust.  This is that smell that permeates the air when you get your tooth drilled for any reason (such as a filling, crown, or root canal.)

The smell of tooth dust can be lessened by using lots of water during the drilling and having the dental assistant hold the suction as close to the tooth as possible.

Although worse smells can come from infected nerves inside the tooth, I’ve never smelled those odors lingering in the dental office, so I figured I wouldn’t spend too much time on them.

Have You Noticed the Dental Smell?

I was talking with a few of my classmates during downtime in our emergency dental clinic at school and a few of them said they don’t notice anything.  One classmate commented, “It’s the fluoride gel.”  She thinks the dental office smells like a fruity fluoride treatment.  Personally, I think it’s the tooth dust smell.

In any case, many dental offices around the country are turning to scented oils and waxes to try to infuse a more pleasant aroma into the dental office.

Have you ever noticed the dental office smell?  Do you like it?  Hate it?  I’d love to hear what you think in the comments section below.  Thanks for reading!